Standing in the Way – Telford Tigers 2015/16Posted: 08/09/2015
Home ice: Telford Ice Rink
League Position 2014/15: League champions, cup champions, playoff semi-finalist
The BOTW Take
Thirty or forty years from now when someone looks back at the history books for British ice hockey they will not hear any of the discussions that were had, any of the personal caveats that were attached to the achievements, any of the fair or unfair criticisms will not be heard. All the record books will say is that the Telford Tigers were the 2014/15 EPIHL league and cup champions.
They were deserved champions as well; over the course of 54 game season they finished the league with 17 points between them and Guildford in second place. Let’s contextualise that; they could have lost both games every weekend for a calendar month and they still would have won the league.
However Banners On The Wall doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it’s impossible to ignore how we got to this point. We can’t ignore the resources that Telford have at their disposal at the front of Red Hockey’s spearhead into the British game. It’s not necessarily a bad thing nor do I attach any asterisks to either of their trophy wins but we can’t just sweep the financial clout they have under the rug. That would be intellectually dishonest. Nor do I think the club or it’s fans need to be ashamed of such a thing but there needs to be an honesty about the somewhat inorganic nature of how it happened.
What happened last season? The plan was two thirds achieved. The league was won, the cup was won, the playoffs were a disappointment. It was a roster put together with one thing in mind and that was domination. It was a domination that was nearly achieved and in some ways, given how the rest of the EPIHL has responded this summer you have to wonder if the best chance for the grand slam has gone. This will not stop Telford trying and they certainly still have the best chance.
Understandably, coach Tom Watkins has not made many changes to the roster that did so well last year.
In net, the return of Tom Murdy and Sam Gospel was not a large surprise. All star Murdy benefited from having a stellar defence in front of him but was always solid when called upon last season. Do I think he was an all star? Ahead of Auzins and Lyle, no I don’t but I think he’s slowly making a case to be considered in that upper echelon of British netminders at this level. I also forget that Murdy is only 24 so there’s also many years left for him to continue making an impact. Gospel is an interesting one; the former Nottingham junior standout is 21 and I’m interested to see what the long game is for him within the Telford organisation. The split in starts between the two netminders will be a stat worth keeping tabs on over the season.
The Tigers defence was rightly praised last season and were the bit of the Tigers that I actually enjoyed the most. Years ago when people told me he wasn’t good enough for the EPL, I said Sam Zajac would not only play EIHL but play EPL again and be a top line player so cheers Sam, I got at least one right in nearly 5 years. The one thing that Tom Watkins deserves a lot of credit for in this defence is that it’s well rounded. Rather than there being some mega stars at the top end then a massive drop off to the depth guys, there’s an obvious trail from 1st to 7th but the quality across the board is such that if there was an injury that no Tigers fans should worry about someone needing to step up a spot. The change of Rupert Quiney for Joe Graham is a fair enough like for like affair. They swap a physical defenceman who didn’t score a bucket load of points for a physical defenceman who won’t score them a lot of points.
With Scott McKenzie leaving to become the head coach of Widnes, Tom Watkins had to go and thought they had found it in Phil Hill. It seemed that Hill had been cast aside by the Steelers that he had just won an EIHL title with and was a highly respected big name to slot straight into that centring role left by McKenzie. Then Hill was added to the Steelers roster for the Champions Hockey League games and there were quotes about wanting to earn a place back on the Sheffield roster in the press which leaves his place with Telford a little up in the air.
Nevertheless the Tigers forward fire power will be a daunting task for any defence this season as all bar the aforementioned McKenzie and the departed Owen Bennett are back up front. The top four scoring forwards last season Peter Szabo, Jason Silverthorn, Joe Miller and Max Birbraer combined last season for 277 points which is just under 6 points per game across the league campaign alone. That number doesn’t include the cup. The Tigers game plan up front will likely be the same as it was last season; shock and awe. They try to blow you away with their obvious attacking skill to make a comeback impossible. They blow you away, break your spirit and you’re done for.
The depth forwards as well just give the Tigers all sorts of options. Rick Plant is the elder statesman at 37 years old but is still a constant threat. Blahoslav Novak has a bit of the scorers touch and can agitate with the best of them. Dan Davies, Nathan Salem and Adam Taylor can all add numbers or play roles as required and play them really effectively.
What do you really need to change if you’re Telford going forward? Obviously there’s no real need to change much. Why would they?
The problem for Telford last season however wasn’t that they didn’t win the playoffs but how they were beaten whilst not winning the playoffs. The stars didn’t fire and Watkins got outcoached on the day. The problem is it’s exposed the gap in the Tigers armour and it’s given the other teams a bit of hope.
2015/16 will be a test for the Tigers in a variety of ways. Tom Watkins is a very good coach but the other teams have moved closer to them in terms of quality and you have to believe they will have seen that one bit of weakness that Telford showed and be looking to play towards that.
However as I said above, honesty is needed. Telford are odds on favourites to retain the league title. It’s an easy thing to say, maybe not the greatest bit of punditry you’ll ever read on BOTW but it’s easy because it’s obvious. Telford are the team to beat and remain so given the players that they have. Will they win the league by such a margin? I seriously doubt it but Telford doing back to back league titles is a serious possibility. They remain the team to beat.